On Our Memorial Gaps: Review of new exhibition, “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean,”

By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett

The University of The Bahamas

“Never hol’ ya tongue unless is your choice”

Hard mout, rudeness is no good for negroes.

We are taught to be seen but not heard…  Negro tongues must remain silent in mouths with teeth that shine too brightly, as so many grotesque renderings capture from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   Hard mout cause plenty trouble, one could be whipped, raped, drawn and quartered, have pepper rubbed in one’s wounds with a little salt for good measure for disrespecting orders. Meaning swims along in a silenced economy of subservience to the Yankee dollar, that during Prohibition led tourism boom in the then-colony.  Yet, even as the new Permanent Exhibition at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” opens, it is as essential today to deconstruct those old and troubling imposed and self-imposed images of negro minstrelsy, mamminess and Uncle Tom that continue to circulate today as days gone by.

Much of the language, visual and verbal has been used to pin down the people, landscape and the spatial cadences in unkind and inferior ways.  As we tour the exhibition, these conversations between artists and their works, influences and reveals nuances and and a subtle a subtext that bubbled to the surface in the second decade of the twenty first century in shocking ways.  The tones, shades, rhythms and edges may blend in some points, but they grate, grind and clash in others, as self-determination and mastery buck up into resistance.

“Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” brings together works to tell stories that have largely been forgotten. For this first exploration, I wanted to walk through the tourist’s eye on The Bahamas, especially as this relates to a recent letter to the Guardian’s Editor about the failure of the country and its African-ness; a term used with great derision, and if we were not also so anti-Black we might see differently, though it echoes historical pronouncements that we are a:  “third class British colony.” Race seems to be at the base of the discussions around national failure, especially “The Ghost of Junkanoo Future” and Henry Stark, who saw Emancipation as a mistake. Yet, we suffer to remain, and the slings continue to shoot arrows at us, as we are muted, edited and sidelined in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Juxtaposing old paintings with more recent, hanging these along with photos in a historical and thematic reading of Bahamian art and culture is important because so much of the nuance is often lost through tongue-tied forgetting.  Not every shut eye sleepin’, though…

It is revelatory to cast an eye over the Royal Victoria Hotel (c. 1857 – 1904) as seen in Jacob F. Coonley’s photograph of it in its heyday to Buster Hall’s 1979 painting of it in its decrepit agedness. Eddie Minnis also paints the twilight of the great hotel’s days, still boasting a ‘staff’ of negroes, but greatly eclipsed by Paradise Island and Cable Beach.

Tourism has come to define, delimit, and exploit the Bahamian landscape.  It has controlled the metaphor of Bahamian development from the early twentieth century to now, shifting slightly in its scope and magnitude.  Once again, Krista Thompson’s An Eye for the Tropics (2006) can guide us through a visual journey of tourism’s controlling narrative of and over The Bahamas and Jamaica.  The language of tourism signifies closure of spaces and places in The Bahamas and Jamaica with the exclusion of black bodies from within those spaces.  This exclusion is excepted when we look to Coonley and others’ staging tourism, to borrow a term from an essay by T. Edensor and a book by J. Desmond.

In both cases the writers explore tourism and tourists’ definition space and place, where northerners come to play and stay.  It is significant that while The Bahamas boasted tourism and a focus on its spoils for longer than most other Caribbean destinations, Jamaica has been the most successful in adapting the model to better suit its tongue.  The former has continued to depend on the Stafford Sands model of Foreign Direct Investment, with little Bahamian-owned machinery.  Jamaica owns its brands and infrastructure, even if they are fully closed off from local eye and tongue (it also invested heavily in its culture).  Control of Bahamian space and imagery therefore remain steadfastly with the outside gaze as New York, London, Paris defines the view. So, tourism stages photos, as those seen from Coonley and others of that time, nearing the end of the exhibition, yet those images continue to circulate today as if to define the present and future of the black body.

The differences of scale and texture between works of course provide a great deal of perspective when examined together.  Hall’s Royal Victoria, much like Minnis’s work, almost dwarves Coonley’s snapshot.  However, the legacy and lasting currency of images from this heyday are amazing. Women in headwraps, reminiscent of the Mammy of the American South, or better known as Aunt Jemima, adorn the walls.  However, it is how the artists capture and then translate these images onto the canvas or paper that speak hard or softly. As the room turns back to the beginning, the images of the Old Victoria Hotel along with those of women as seen by the photographer’s staged gaze bring the show back to “dialeck tinking.”

It all ends with Katrina Cartwright’s driftwood sculpture Nkisi/Nkondi Form: Prejudice is the Theory, Discrimination is the Practice (2012) that though we may be nailed through with contradictions and dark thoughts in light and airy waterscapes, we remain shackled by those same contradictions and the inability to remove ourselves from a structure of paradise and plantation that continue to imprison in their longevity and rigidity.  Colonial structures never truly end.

Light, dark, image, sculpture, resonance and shadow all cast new and old language onto our visionscapes of us.  While The Bahamas can be dismissed as a backwater African failure in the 21st century, as it was in the early days of colonialism and then as it met its new adventure during World War II, as submarines and U-boats, gunboats and man-o-wars, navigated unsuspecting shores through the Exumas, off the Great Bahama Banks into the Tongue of the Ocean that lashes us with dark mystery, we understand our meaning.

Sadly, as the defined nature of the tourist gaze and the structure of inequality lose ground to a less clear ‘dialeck,’ to use another term walled up in the show, we find our younger people, though subject to savage tongue lashings in print for a failure that is not theirs, though they be entitled from a generation of poor leadership and taught that all was for me baby, when in reality the same mines and torpedoes remain unexploded en los baja mares.

Each room of hard mouth full a talk, never hol’ ya tongue unless is your choice.

“Royal Victoria Hotel” (c 1857 - 1904). Jacob Frank Coonley, albumen print, 7 x 8. Image courtesy of the National Collection.